On Monday, I wrote a column addressing the Michigan basketball team’s need to focus on what it is about the team that causes it to shoot itself in the foot.
I said tackling those internal struggles should be the Wolverines’ main focus right now.
In response, I received plenty of comments on the article asking the same relevant, obvious question:
So what are these internal struggles?
It’s a good question, and one that’s extremely tough to answer. But let me outline for you what I think the problems are, and what I think the problems aren’t.
Defense coming from offense
This is a generalization, but really good teams — teams that go to the NCAA Tournament — create offense from their defense.
If shots aren’t falling, good teams buckle down on defense and create fastbreak opportunities and easy buckets through steals, blocks, or long rebounds.
Why do great teams operate this way?
You can’t have an off day on defense — you’re either trying or you’re not, and that holds true with the even talent level in the Big Ten. Even if you’re shooting poorly, you can rely on your defense to create layups.
Yeah, I know, sounds like something you heard from your 4th-grade YMCA basketball coach, but it’s true.
Unfortunately, the Wolverines appear to be working on the opposite premise—their at times lackadaisical defense seems to stem from missing shots.
When their offense isn’t working, their defense breaks down. This was painfully apparent against Northwestern on Sunday. As Michigan began to have serious trouble cracking the Northwestern zone in the second half, the team’s frustration showed on the other end. In the first half, the Wolverines allowed the Wildcats to shoot just 34 percent from the field.
The second half? 56 percent.
“Because (Northwestern’s zone) took us out of rhythm (on offense), our defense in the second half was not good,” Michigan coach John Beilein said after the game. “We just got distracted by our lack of offense, and that’s the story of this team.”
So, there’s the major problem with the defense. But if the defense is lacking when the offense slips up, why has the offense been struggling so much this season? If the Wolverines could find consistency on offense, they presumably would play much harder on defense and they’d be a pretty good team — maybe the team people expected to see at the beginning of the season.
Starting a freshman or a prototypical spot-up shooting guard at point guard
I’m pretty sure you know who I’m talking about, but I’ll say it anyway. The freshman, Darius Morris and the shooting guard, sophomore Stu Douglass.
Morris was declared the starter at the beginning of the season because of the promise he showed in high school. He’s quick, has great vision, can penetrate and can dish.
But he’s still a freshman, and we can’t all be John Wall.
He has shown flashes of brilliance, and fans can see him develop every game, but he’s not quite ready to lead a college team at that spot yet. I’m confident he will be capable, just not yet.
So instead of Morris, Beilein went with his next-best, and safer, option — Douglass.
Douglass handled the transition from shooting guard very well, cutting down drastically on his turnovers during the season, improving his defense and providing the Wolverines with a steady, experienced hand on offense.
Unfortunately, Douglass is not a point guard — he doesn’t slash and he doesn’t drive-and-dish. He’s simply a shooting guard who was asked to play point guard.
The result? Michigan is still without an experienced point guard.
How important is having an experienced point guard? Ask almost any recent NCAA Tournament Champion:
2009 North Carolina — Ty Lawson, junior.
2008 Kansas — Mario Chalmers, junior.
2006 and 2007 Florida — Taurean Green, sophomore and junior.
2005 North Carolina — Raymond Felton, junior.
The position is a lot like quarterback in football, and Michigan fans know all too well what it’s like playing with a freshman quarterback.
Starting an inexperienced point guard leads to two intertwined issues: not only is there no one who can get the ball in to DeShawn Sims in a way that puts him in a position to score, but there is also no one who can penetrate, draw the defense and kick out for wide-open shots. Good entry passes are absolutely essential to a player like Sims, who goes one-on-one in the post with bigger players most nights. And when there’s no point guard who can penetrate and draw the defense away from the shooters, the Wolverines end up taking more contested shots, which leads nicely to my next point…
To be fair, Michigan’s shooting has improved lately, but the team is still shooting a mediocre 29 percent for the season. The shooting woes on this team have been so widespread that I’m going to tackle the worst offenders on the team player-by-player. For the sake of brevity, I’m making a 50-shots-or-more rule.
Stu Douglass (32 percent from 3-point line, 33 percent from the field) — Here’s my argument, with little statistical or anecdotal backup: playing point guard threw off Douglass’s shot. As a spot-up shooting guard, it’s critical to develop a catch-and-shoot rhythm during games. It’s a mentality more than anything — “If I get the ball and I’m open, I’m shooting it.” Douglass being forced into a playmaking role, one that doesn’t suit him switched his mentality from shooter to distributor, and all of a sudden, he started missing open shots. He just stopped looking comfortable.
Manny Harris (28 percent, 46 percent) — Hamstring. Hamstring, hamstring, hamstring. I know it sounds like a convenient excuse, but it’s much more than that. Imagine going up for a jumpshot, except when you jump, you can only jump off of one leg. You think that would throw you off a little bit? That’s what Harris has had to deal with, especially at the beginning of the season. And while it is healing, he’s still dealing with it now. Now, you may be thinking, “But Joe, that’s not really Manny’s game. He’s a slasher, right?” You’re right, person I just made up, but consider this: When Harris has the ball, defenders usually have to think about three things—1) is he going to shoot? 2) is he going to drive? 3) dang it. When Harris can’t hit his shots, all defenders have to think about is his ability to drive, which allows them to play off him, making him easier to guard.
Laval Lucas-Perry (35 percent, 39 percent) — Tough to criticize, since he’s been the team’s best shooter, but at the same time he did barely crack the 50-shot barrier with 54. And while Lucas-Perry started the season strong, notching 18 points in Michigan’s first game of the Old Spice Classic against Creighton, his shooting has disappeared in some pretty important games.
Utah — zero points, 0-1
Kansas — two points, 0-2
Indiana — zero points, 0-2
Of course, against Penn State he had 16 points and led an improbable comeback effort. Lucas-Perry’s problem is consistency, and, as weird as it sounds, his problem is not shooting enough. Take another look at those stats — lots of 0-1’s and 0-2’s up there. Generally, when he shoots more, he makes more. His best games?
Creighton — 18 points, 4-6
Penn State — 16 points, 4-8
More shots seem to lead to more makes. Lucas-Perry needs to adopt more of a shooter’s mentality. The only way to make shots is to take them, so when the redshirt sophomore catches the ball at the 3-point line, just fire away. That way, he gives himself a chance to develop an in-game rhythm. Lucas-Perry is simply not aggressive enough, and the numbers show that when he asserts himself, he makes shots.
Zack Novak (28 percent, 38 percent) — OK. Him I’m having trouble with. Last year, Novak shot 34 percent. This year, he’s tied with Harris for last in this group. And I’m just as stumped as he is. He does have an unorthodox shooting motion, one that leaves him fading away almost every time, but he doesn’t need to change up his form just because he’s having a bad year—it’s obviously worked for him in the past, it will work for him again. Fortunately, my inability to make sense of Novak’s poor shooting leads us to my next point:
While Michigan is shooting the ball very poorly from beyond the arc this year, they didn’t exactly shoot the lights out last year. Thirty-three percent? Not great.
The bigger difference is that last year, the Wolverines made shots when they absolutely needed them. Remember Douglass’s two huge triples against UCLA? Or the four from Novak against Duke? While Michigan didn’t light the world on fire from beyond the arc, they made them when they needed to. For some reason, that’s not happening this year.
No, it doesn’t appear to me that there is any sort of internal conflict on this team. It’s not like I hang out with these guys every day, but I do have more access than most, and this does seem like a group of guys that like each other. After games, nobody complains about touches, the play of their teammates, the coaches or anything like that. These guys seem to have bought into Beilein’s philosophy, and they’re just as confused as the fans are about what has happened so far this season.
The really unfortunate part of all this is that while I believe this outline pretty clearly explains the troubles Michigan is experiencing this year, time may have already run out.